Mark Twain to Walt Whitman: “Happy Birthday” 1

Continuing our linking to Yale Library’s podcasting of letters from American Authors, today we post Mark Twain’s letter to Walt Whitman on his 70th Birthday.  To celebrate, many of Whitman’s close acquaintances wrote to him to commemorate.  A copy of the transcript of the letter is here.

One of the interesting statements that Twain makes is the expectation that things will be developing rapidly very soon.  He writes to Whitman: “Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still growing, visibly growing while you look.”  Twain was correct — thirty years from the letter would see technology like the world never knew.  Unfortunately, that technology was that of war.

Image of letter, sent to Whitman from Twain.   Hat tip to The Centered Librarian.

The Elephant in the Room or U.S. News Latest Law School Rankings 3

So, despite the urging to not talk about the U.S. News rankings, I just can’t resist. Its like not talking about the elephant that just took a huge shit appeared in your living room. It seems that the U.S. News rankings only really matter to four people:

  • Students and other financially vested constituants of a law school (after-all, everyone wants to know whether their investment is sound, and in the absence of market exchanges, rankings serve a pyschological purpose of affirming that we did make a good decision);
  • Unhappy faculty who can use U.S. News as a platform to discuss other problems as symptomatic of the ranking (“I am sure that my top 50 article would have been a top 15 article had the law school purchased that iPad for me (p.s. my law school purchased my iPad a month ago — I digress));
  • Law school deans as responsive to the first two groups and trying like hell to not be sucked into the vortex of U.S. News collateral damage; and
  • Brian Leiter (yes Brian, even despising the rankings so much that you request a boycott means that they matter to you).

For all practical purposes, it seems that anyone that cares about U.S. News simply cares about other things of which U.S. News becomes a vetting mechanism.  For example, Students are rarely pissed disturbed only because the rankings have fallen.  They are usually more upset about other things, like the failing job market, the high costs of tuition, or the lack of convenient parking near the law school (frankly I would be upset about the latter too with all of the heavy books we assign were it not for my posh private parking less than one hundred feet from my office.  Again, I digress).  So U.S. News becomes a mechanism for students to vent their feelings about other things which are usually outside of the universe of faculty and law schools to respond to (like I said — I have great parking, my school purchased me an iPad, I have a job, and I paid my tuition dollars long before the ridiculous onslaught of high priced education (well not too long before)).

Alumni present the more persnickety problem in that they are giving money with very little upside other than wanting to see their money spent well.  Names on buildings and rooms are nice, but you don’t want to just give those away.  After-all,there are only so many brick entrances that a law school can have, and no one wants to see the Bob Wilson, Janet McConnell, Turd Ferguson, John Bailey, Dennis Oppenheimer Memorial Janitorial closet.  Rankings are important to these people in that they have some banner to say my money mattered.   (I have not done this research, though I am sure someone has — I wonder what the average percentage increase/ decrease in alumni small value giving is in a year in which there is movement of a school in U.S. News).

For Deans the question is how to manage the limited resources one already has when he knows whatever he invests in will likely NOT show up in the latest market analysis U.S. News Ranking. For example I know of one institution that has taken some dramatic hits in the U.S. News data despite a very productive faculty, student numbers that are great, and the attempt to be responsive to perceived short comings. At the end of the day, this Dean finds himself with his hands tied against the greater tide of the rankings, for which he seems to not be able to do anything to sway the rankings in a positive direction (to be clear, I don’t think he should).  Deans it seems have the unpleasant task of making three groups not unhappy.  For the most part, I think when people accept the role of the deanship, they begin by thinking about all of the possibilities the place offers.   But slowly over time, Deans simply devolve into not pissing anyone off and praying that the U.S. News Report does not leave a huge turd in their office pull them into a sphere of disharmony — where students, alumni, and faculty are saying “what have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, we have seen U.S. New’s gravitational pull on certain deans.

Which brings me to why U.S. News Matters, even to Brian Leiter.  U.S. News is a market survey – no more, no less.  The fact that schools game the rankings tells us it matters.  The fact that we talk about the rankings (even negatively) tells us that they matter.  The fact is, that in the legal blogosphere we well may be living in Brian Leiter’s world, but that world, is tucked away nicely, at least for one month of the year, in Bob Morse’s Universe.  And that Universe, when not used to hose a Dean, or give a law school an unhealthy sense of itself, can be a useful tool to move a place in conversation.  What we should not do, is make the limited Universe of U.S. News the end of that conversation!

Update:  Dan Filler and Above the Law weigh in.

So, for all faculty, students, alumni, deans and Brian Leiter frustrated at the latest market survey release, here is a song for you:

The City 2

Robert park wrote in the 1920’s:
the city and the urban environment represent man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more to his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. The City as Social Laboratory.

Cities force humanity into conversation with one another. Forced conversation. Unintentional conversation. Rubbing elbows on the subway conversation, brushing shoulders walking down the stairway conversation. Which is why cities define humanity’s greatest attempt to remake itself as a non-intentional social creature.

It seems that early twentieth century authors understood this. Paul West, writing a short pamphlet on Robert Penn Warren noted that Warren’s “overview is of the incalculable, unpredictable repercussions our least endeavors provoke. Identity, in particular, is not a fixity, but a studiously maintained transaction with other people. The means of self-establishment is also the prime agency of confusion, especially for those who want perfection and utter consistency.” Pamphlet printed by University of Minnesota Press.

Its the story of Jay Gatz and Tom Buchanan and George Wilson. Thrusted unintentionally, almost haplessly into a narrative of ambition, jealousy and manipulation. Fitzgerald ends his great work on Jay Gatsby (or Gatz if you prefer his true identity) with these words: “[Gatsby] has come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning….”

Perhaps man’s city is doomed by the lack of intentioned interaction, a collection of vacant defunct houses, like the prostitute in Whitman’s The City Dead-House.

By the city dead-house by the gate,
As idly sauntering wending my way from the clangor,
I curious pause, for lo, an outcast form, a poor dead prostitute brought,
Her corpse they deposit unclaim’d, it lies on the damp brick pavement,
The divine woman, her body, I see the body, I look on it alone,
That house once full of passion and beauty, all else I notice not,
Nor stillness so cold, nor running water from faucet, nor odors morbific impress me,
But the house alone – that wondrous house – that delicate fair house – that ruin!
That immortal house more than all the rows of dwellings ever built!
Or white-domed capital with majestic figure surmounted or all the old high-spired cathedrals,
That little house alone more than them all – poor, desperate house!
Fair, fearful wreck – tenement of a soul – itself a soul,
Unclaim’d, avoided house – take one breath from my tremulous lips,
Take one tear dropt aside as I go for thought of you,
Dead house of love — house of madness and sin, crumbled and crush’d,
House of life, erewhile talking and laughing – but ah, poor house, dead even then,
Months, years, an echoing, garnish’d house – but dead,dead, dead.

Perhaps. But perhaps, the city is just the place where man exemplifies his greatest humanity. Where mankind constantly remakes himself in the image of god — intentionally caring for the poor, intentionally nursing the sick, and intentionally fighting for the oppressed.

The City Dead-house, published in Leaves of Grass (the Death Bed Edition).

Rest, Sweet, Rest 4

A Clear Midnight
by: Walt Whitman

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Published in Leaves of Grass Death-bed Edition